We’ve rushed here today, to the Operating Theatre. During this Rotation we are to follow the surgeons wherever their work takes them.
A couple of weeks ago the young surgeon whispered: Don’t rush home this evening, Howard. Something’s going to happen,
something historic. I didn’t rush home and history did happen – Australia’s first heart transplantation. A few of us stood outside Theatre and waited. Somehow it didn’t feel anticlimactic to miss the experience, to stand adjacent as history happened. We sensed the meaning.
This afternoon the call came: Emergency surgery in Theatre. Come now!
The boy on the table was riding his bike home from school when he was hit. He wasn’t too bad at first but then his blood pressure fell,
and his heart started to race. His skin colour turned to parchment and his belly began to swell. His trolley bursts into Theatre and the Surgeon’s Apprentice begins to cut into the distended belly without waiting for anaesthesia: the boy had been deeply unconscious since he arrived in the ambulance. The Chief arrives, flings on gown and gloves, no time to wash, takes over the operation. A mild man of about sixty, wise, he’s not reflective now as he slashes the belly widely open and a tide of blood pours over both surgeons, onto the floor.
Frantic action above the table, quick mopping at the feet of the surgeons, lest they slip and fall.
The tide of blood does not abate.
No speech, nothing heard apart from fast movement of limbs as they grope and suck and search slippery viscera for the bleeder.
Artery forceps grab suspect bleeding sources but the flood does not slow.
The blood they are transfusing is insufficient.
A second transfusion starts.
The anaesthetist’s voice says, we’ve lost the heartbeat. There’s no blood pressure.
The surgeon works by feel beneath the surface, groping, hoping, grasping at straws for the unseen splenic pedicle.
The anaesthetist injects adrenaline, massages the heart.
He looks at the boy’s pupils. They’ve dilated. He shines a light to see if the pupils will shrink by reflex. He’s searching for vitality of a brain that’s had no supply of blood – for how long?
Too long. The reflex is absent. He leans over the boy’s pale face to his colleague and taps him on the arm: He’s gone. We’ve lost him.
All this took place in 1967. I don’t remember feeling stricken. Was I numb perhaps, with horror? With self-terror? I caught the event but I missed the meaning.
The boy was twelve years old. His hair was fair and he was lightly freckled. Today he’d be old enough for the pension. I feel stricken now. Riding my bike – yes, a bike: the connection passes me by – riding to the shops this morning, I feel the enormity and my feet fail on the pedals.
(This is the first in a series in which this old doctor recalls and reflects and wonders.)